Hearing Is Our Least Trustworthy Sense

We like to think we perceive the world just as everyone else does. That's what makes communication possible, and without a baseline reality, how would science proceed?

We like to think we perceive the world just as everyone else does. That's what makes communication possible, and without a baseline reality, how would science proceed? But our sense of hearing is remarkably unreliable, say sound psychologists. And since hearing is one out of just five senses we use to perceive the world, that's a little concerning.

Or one out of seven if you count proprioception and vestibular sensation — and hey, why not?

Just yesterday, for example, I missed a call from an unfamiliar number, and because I haven't set up my voicemail yet (who needs it?!), I called the number back. Being wary of telemarketing, I thought I heard the woman on the other end offer me a title loan. But she clarified she was looking for a man named Gary Sloan.

Ironically, our sense of hearing is unreliable because of its robust ability to create meaning from otherwise random sounds. If we expect to hear certain words from someone, then we stitch together their mumblings into what we think they're saying (or what we fear they're saying).

Diana Deutsch, sound psychologist at UC San Diego, says that how we hear sounds depends on the tonality of our mother tongue, which varies greatly from country to country. Californians and British people, for example, hear tonal sequences differently even though they are sonically identical.

The more we learn about the limits of the human senses, the more we may question our species' ability to truly understand the world in all its complexity. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson explains, "We live entirely within a microscopic section of the stimuli that flood in on us all the time."

Read more at BBC Future.

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